Country Ham with Redeye Gravy
Growing up in Connecticut my exposure to the pig was mostly limited to pork chops, pork loin, and bacon. Ribs were mostly of the beef variety, and barbecue was a verb, not a noun. Don’t get me wrong, pork chops can be a revelation when they are done right, but when they are done wrong; let’s just say you’d be better off putting gravy on a football. It wasn’t until I moved to North Carolina that I fell under the spell of the pig, and now I’m addicted. I can make sausage gravy in my sleep, I have learned that bacon is a flavoring as well as a food, and if you need to find me at a pig pickin’, I’ll be the one finger-deep into the pork jowls, face dripping with fat. I’m not exaggerating when I say that a pig tattoo might be somewhere in my future.
Hams have always escaped me though. Buying a huge ham to cook for two people has always seemed like a waste, and I can never get the 1960’s ham-and-pineapple image out of my head. There just seemed to be so much more to pork than ham, so I generally left it alone.
And then I got a copy of the Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook. There, in the gravy chapter (a whole chapter on gravy!) was a recipe for Ham and Redeye Gravy. It called for coffee. Coffee! Who the heck ever heard of coffee and ham, together? I remain convinced that this recipe must have been the concoction of some hung-over, or possibly still drunk, cook who mistakenly poured his coffee into the skillet instead of something else.
Nevertheless, I’ve made a commitment to explore some of the South’s most famous recipes, and Redeye Gravy is surely up there at the top of the list. I picked up a ham steak (something else you’ll almost never find in a Northern grocery store) and got to work.
First of all, the recipe is deceptively simple. It is basically three ingredients – ham, coffee, and brown sugar. I cheated a bit and rendered the ham fat in my skillet with some leftover bacon fat, but I figure that only Southern-fied it even more. Once I got going the aroma was intoxicating. Now I’m an impatient cook, but I made myself follow the directions of waiting until you see the first wisp of steam before removing the lid from the skillet, and I’m glad I did. I was hit with a burst of sweet, caramely, hammy steam that almost made me drool right into the pan.
My only concern with the recipe is that it says to wait until the the ham browns before continuing on to make the gravy. Sounds easy enough, but I quickly realized that when you cook ham in a coffee gravy it pretty much turns everything brown. I decided to let it cook another five minutes just to be safe, and everything seemed to work out fine.
Country Ham with Redeye Gravy
- 2 slices country ham, about ¼-inch thick
- 1 teaspoon vegetable oil, as needed
- ½ cup fresh, hot coffee, divided
- 1 tbsp packed light brown sugar
- Trim the fat from the ham slices. Put the fat in a large cast-iron skillet and set the ham aside. Cook the fat over medium heat until it renders, about 3 minutes. (If there isn’t much rendered fat, add the vegetable oil. This is where I used bacon fat.)
- Pour ¼ cup of the coffee into the skillet. Add the brown sugar and stir until melted. Place the ham slices on top and cover the skillet with a lid. Cook over medium heat until wisps of steam come out from under the lid (it took about 5 minutes), then uncover and cook the ham until it is lightly browned.
- Transfer the ham to a warm plate and keep warm. Discard any remaining pieces of fat. Add the remaining ¼ cup of coffee. Increase the heat to medium-high, and cook, stirring up from the bottom, until the gravy comes together and cooks down a little, about 2 minutes.
- Serve hot with the ham slices, as well as biscuits for sopping.